In the early '90s, Philippine children's literature was just taking shape. Publishers, writers, and artists alike were starting to explore the genre, and by this time, only a handful of them was creating books by Filipino creatives for Filipino kids.
Yet in 1991, a workshop by the Philippine Board on Books for Young People (PBBBY) and Goethe-Institut changed everything. A meeting of young, like-minded creatives who shared the same passion for children's books produced one of the first artist groups in the country to focus on children's illustration.
Called Ang Ilustrador ng Kabataan (Ang INK), it began as a clique huddling every month in an empty classroom or under a tree at the UP College of Fine Arts. Thirty years later, this shared passion of a small barkada would blossom into a community of more than 300 illustrators.
Below, three generations of Ang INK—founding members Ruben "Totet" de Jesus and Robert Alejandro, past president Liza Flores, and current president Nina Martinez—tell the story behind the group's success in a series of recollections.
The interview has been edited and translated for length, clarity, and accessibility.
On the Formation of Ang INK
Ruben: We formed Ang INK in 1991. It started during a two-week children's illustration workshop initiated by the PBBY and Goethe-Institut. The workshop facilitator was artist Reinhard Michl from Germany, and the participants were from different areas. The workshop triggered something in us. At that time, there was no art group specifically for kids. We thought of forming one and had the organizers' blessing: Rio Almario and Larry Alcala, the PBBY and Goethe-Institut members, and Reinhard. Ang INK started with just our drive, and the rest is history. We gained the trust and confidence of people in the industry—the publishers, writers, storytellers, media. We had excitement and enthusiasm, and you can't do wrong if you're going to do stuff for kids.
"You can't do wrong if you're going to do stuff for kids."
Robert: When Ang INK was founded, I was there during the workshop where it all started. It was just a really fun workshop, and I felt very grateful that I was invited, meeting one of the greatest German children's book illustrators. I remember that there were very few Filipino children's books during that time. Most were foreign with blonde, blue-eyed characters. So, when we were about to go home after the workshop, it was suggested that we form an organization. I was never a part of an organization. I was very independent and would always work alone. So being a part of a group was a new experience.
Your 'Why' Behind Ang INK
Liza: It's a support group for children's book illustrators. The organization functions that way because not all of us are published. We have members who just want to be there. They keep coming back because they like the support, which can be seen in a lot of ways, not just career-wise. It's a support group for artists who believe in the same things—the importance of art for children, quality illustrations in children's books, and the power of reading and literature.
Robert: It's my tribe. I feel as if we are made of the same stuff—a lot of us are quiet, like to be in a corner just drawing, and enjoy children's book illustrations. I think we are a group of odd people who get along with odd friends—and I personally take that as a compliment. I'm sure you know what I mean.
"It's my tribe. We are made of the same stuff."
Nina: One way to put it is keeping the light on. Not only in terms of helping each other find work but also in times of the pandemic, where we keep each other going.
Ruben: INK is constantly there to retain the child in everyone. The child in everyone doesn't go away, and that can be seen or related in various ways. It's constant—not just in the art we produce but also in how we handle things. We manage to accomplish things, but we're not very rigid. The child in us tries to handle our roles with fun and lightheartedness. In our art, we address themes or visualize topics so that they're not too heavy but still tackle reality. That's the child in us.
"INK is constantly there to retain the child in everyone."
On Choosing Children's Stories
Liza: When I first saw Ang INK's exhibit, there was an instant connection. I knew that this was something that I could and wanted to do. I've always been fond of books, and Ang INK's exhibit made me realize that I can make my own books. When I became more active in Ang INK, I saw the value of books to society and children.
Ruben: I'd like to say that I like to draw, but I can't say that I'm good at it. But one thing that makes illustrating for children's book special is its possibilities in terms of style and approach. There's no need to follow the rules. These possibilities can turn a weakness or a particular area an artist is not confident in into something unique.
Nina: Since I was young, I have enjoyed both writing and drawing, so it's natural that I would gravitate to children's books. And I didn't question that until college, where I started realizing that there are so many applications for it beyond children's books. But I never let it go. Besides children's books, I also work in comics and animation, and I feel all of these are a combination of storytelling and drawing. So, I never felt that I chose children's books among all of these things—it's one of my joys aside from several others.
On the Organization's Journey
Robert: I remember that I wasn't sure what would come out of the organization. All I knew was I was among friends who all liked drawing, so we would meet in an incredibly informal way—having fun, sitting on the floor, like what we're still doing now. After 30 years, INK has gotten so big. Aside from the size, there is now a more sophisticated way of getting new members. Well, the world has become a different place, but there are still so many similarities. We're still like a barkada; that's how I feel about it, and I like that.
Ruben: The 30 years of Ang INK was not that smooth sailing. A lot happened to us, and, in a way, those imperfections helped us. Even now, we still have hurdles, but the child in us helps deal with these things. Before, I also felt that writing and illustrating children's books were not considered the same level as others. In fact, it took a while in the academe before it was put at the same level as where it is now.
I remember two instances that validated the importance of what we're doing. During a function at the UP Fine Arts when I was the college secretary, I met Anita Magsaysay-Ho. She asked me, "Iho, what do you do as an artist?" Do you know what she said? "Oh, that's very difficult." I was surprised, especially coming from someone like her. Then, when I was at an event at Cubao Expo, I asked Butch Dalisay why he doesn't write for children. He answered, “Ayoko ‘yun, mahirap.” (I don't like that, it's hard.) So, it got me thinking that contrary to what others say, that creating for children is easy, it's actually not.
On Ang INK's influence
Robert: Ang INK completely changed the face and visual identity of Philippine children's books, and that's a really important achievement. When we started, children's books were all imported with foreign-looking characters. Now, the characters look entirely Filipino with brown, short noses. There are representations from different islands—Visayas and Mindanao—and I hope we continue representing Filipino diversity. We still have so much work to do, which is wonderful.
"Ang INK completely changed the face and visual identity of Philippine children's books."
Ruben: We also influence each other. There are times that we see the works of elder members in the works of younger ones, which I think is good because the group's influence is evident. But I always say that don't stop there. Naturally, we get influenced by others' works, but it's essential to absorb and process them in such a way that you can grow.
Also, one of the reasons why we formed INK is to professionalize our craft and give due importance to children's illustrations. Now, I feel that book illustrators are more respected, but we still have a pretty long way to go.
Liza: Ang INK has created shared experiences throughout generations. I remember Ani Almario of Adarna saying that it's a happy occasion whenever a book celebrates its anniversary because that means that there was a shared story between a parent and a child.
Nina: I can attest to Ang INK being influential. Growing up in the '90s and 2000s, I had favorite children's books like Alamat ng Ampalaya and Termite Queen. Only after I joined Ang INK did I realize that members of the group created these stories. It just goes to show how dominant their influence is.
On Current Themes and Concerns on Children's Books
Ruben: Our concerns and children's concerns are the same—one of which is mental health. It's important to give attention to this. I always say to my students that they're not the only ones who have mental health issues, all of us—even teachers—can have it too. Another concern is the current limitations. How do we make books and visuals closer to children considering the situation we're facing? How can we creatively address that?
Nina: That's why when the pandemic started, most publishing and acting groups started doing online storytelling because that's one thing that boomed. However, I think it's wrong to assume that one solution right now is completely going digital because some kids still have no internet access. So print should not die. We need to find the balance between reaching out to kids with internet access and without.
"We need to find the balance in terms of reaching out to kids with internet access and without."
Your Dream Project for Ang INK
Nina: I want to revive INK Fest. We successfully held it before the pandemic, and I hope we can get to the point where we can do it again.
Liza: Currently, I'm active with the NGO Room to Read, where we have online workshops on book illustrations and writing. My dream is to start an Ang INK school on illustration or some form of it. Because most of us learned how to create a book while on the job, but there was no structured program available for us. There are workshops for children about writing, but there are no workshops for children on illustration, specifically visual storytelling.
"My dream is to start an Ang INK school on illustration or some form of it."
Ruben: To add to Liza's dream, I think imparting knowledge is very important. Imparting in terms of sharing the whole creative process without sugarcoating it so people will be aware of what goes through in creating books. When you show them the reality, they can use these as insights.
I have aspirations for Ang INK that it will have the recognition it deserves so that it can continue the good work it has been doing. Because for 30 years, members have put their heart and soul into Ang INK, and that recognition will make the group push through despite the uncertainties we have to face.
Robert: I hope our illustration skills will be more diverse, imaginative, and word-class. I want Philippine children's book illustrations to be known worldwide. I dream that we will be known at the Bologna Fair, and yes, we can do it. We have all the talent and skills! I also wish that there will be INK chapters in Visayas and Mindanao. I want the diversity of our people to be represented in Philippine children's books as well.
"I want the diversity of our people to be represented in Philippine children's books."
How has Ang INK Helped You as an Individual
Nina: Personally, before I joined Ang INK, my only connection with other illustrators was social media. And most of the time, they were people of my age. In joining the group, I met younger and older people. I saw illustration as a profession with a rich past and future. I have people to learn from and people to teach.
Liza: There are a lot of life-long friends created in the group because they stemmed from a common interest and love despite us coming from different age groups. Ang INK also opened many opportunities for me. For example, I like mounting exhibits, and it doesn't have to be mine. With Ang INK, I can put together an exhibit or create a book featuring my friends' works. I would not be able to do that if I were alone.
It's also a proud moment to see the growth of members; how they blossomed from being insecure to being published and, eventually, finding their style. When someone wins an award, you feel that it's a win for the group. Our members' successes are our successes, too.
"When someone wins an award, you feel that it's a win for the group. Our members' successes are our successes, too."
Ruben: Maintaining a certain standard. To continue in what we do and to deal with people with mutual respect, a standard has to be there. Maintaining a standard can come in various ways—in your craft, output, and dealing with other people. That helped me a lot. Never did I imagine that I would be dealing with a bunch of, as Robert says, odd people. It's not usually a positive term, but we are odd. And I never expected to have a harmonious relationship with everyone for 30 years.
Robert: I'm not an extrovert. I'm a very introverted and shy person, so I don't make many friends easily. But I can honestly say that INK is my social life. When INK started, they were my friends; when we had an organization, they were still my friends; and until now, I would honestly say INK members—even the new ones—are my friends.
On Aspiring Children's Book Illustrators
Nina: My advice is to stand up for yourself. We're practically always asked for a contract upfront. And I hope that the support system for illustrators is not just within Ang INK. I hope that even those who might not have the time or desire to join the group can find fellow illustrators to reach out to ask for advice about pricing and clients, that it's widespread rather than a secret that's passed around.
Another piece of advice would be not rushing into finding your style—which is confused with aesthetic—but style is how you solve a problem and not your preferred palette. Let yourself explore, and you'll realize that you already have a style one day. That's how I realized it.
Liza: To add to what Nina said, I hope that whatever standard Ang INK set for business practices and pricing would also apply to all illustrators and not just the group. I hope that our influence will reach that point.
My advice would be whatever work you do—do the best you can. Because the reward of good work is more work. Don't be impatient in finding your style—it's an unconscious thing that will come out if you have done enough.
Ruben: I hope we become aware of these standard business practices. I hope it works both ways, where clients will already have a reasonable standard that will not undermine the illustrator's work.
My advice is to find ways to continue creating. Projects do not come instantly, so do what you can to build your portfolio. Continue creating and be true to yourself—even to the things you still have to work on. You have to be aware of those, too. Don't just show your good works. Show the areas you need to improve on, because who knows, you can find something unique in those limitations. In terms of style, it's not an instant process. You need to create more because you deprive yourself of seeing and discovering other possibilities when you don't.
"Continue creating and be true to yourself—even to the things that you have to still work on."
Robert: My advice is to join Ang INK because I can see that when you're surrounded by encouraging and creative artist friends, you will grow and be inspired.
I am a firm believer in exploration and being playful with other styles. But the truth is, when I try to explore different styles, I look at my art and it still kind of looks like my artwork. It's still there. Explore but be authentic to your style.
On How to Be an INKie
Nina: We have around 70 active members and more than 300 members. To be a member, every year, we usually give a text (a poem or a short story), then the applicants are asked to illustrate a few spreads and submit a portfolio of a few works. We'll usually announce the application on social media a month before the deadline when we open it.
Want to see Ang INK’s 30th anniversary exhibition? Walkthrough INK Story at Ateneo Art Gallery by clicking here!
It Takes a Village is Looking for Juan's response in bringing a deeper appreciation for art and literature to the public by getting to know the artists and writers behind our books and merchandise, uncovering their stories and experiences in creating each work. As parents and children get to know the faces and stories behind each title, we hope that they'll find a renewed love for books, empowering a generation that reads.
Want to purchase the complete INK Story merch? Use the code ThankYouAngInk and get 15% OFF when you shop the collection until Dec 31, 2021. A part of your every purchase goes to book donations to children from underprivileged communities in support of CANVAS' One Million Books for One Million Filipino Children Campaign.
Words/interview by Monica Antonio. Photo editing by Pia Maralit. Photos and videos courtesy of Ang INK.